X's & O's: Breaking Down the Tampa 2 Under Cleveland Browns' Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton

In last week's film study we broke down and analyzed Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s base pass coverages behind his 3-4 hybrid front. After focusing on the MOFC (Middle of the Field Closed) Cover 1 and Cover 3 concepts, this week we move on to the famous split-safety Tampa 2.

As detailed in last week’s article:

A key component of Horton’s base shells is his heavy use of a single deep safety in both man and zone coverage, often referred to as MOFC (Middle of the Field Closed). Horton’s use of MOFC coverage concepts can be primarily attributed to two factors:

  • Safeties (generally the strong safety) are heavily utilized in defending the run-game, particularly on early downs
  • Horton runs a hyper-aggressive blitz package from multiple position groups, leaving minimal defenders to play pass coverage

This week our focus moves to a situational coverage used when Horton expects the offense to pass due to tendency and down/distance, but elects not to blitz. While the second-time Browns’ defensive coordinator will utilize the popular Cover 4 (broken down in last week’s X’s & O’s article to defend a likely pass, his go-to concept is the ubiquitous Cover 2.

Cover 2 falls under the MOFO (Middle of the Field Open) family of coverages, (Cover 2, Cover 4, Cover 6, Cover 7, etc.)utilizing split-safeties to defend a deep-half of the field against vertical threats, leaving five defenders to play the underneath zones. Cover 2 provides a defense with a variety of strengths, including deep help on vertical routes, underneath coverage across the field, the freedom to bracket a dangerous downfield threat with a cornerback/deep safety, and the ability to play press technique at the line of scrimmage as both cornerbacks have deep help. Weaknesses include a deep middle-of-the-field hole, personnel mismatches due to linebackers guarding tight ends and tailbacks in pass coverage, and lack of pre-snap disguise as both safeties must get to their hash at the snap.

While Cover 2 is often analyzed as a single concept, there are actually two major variants, with one utilizing underneath zone coverage and the second utilizing man coverage (sometimes referred to as Cover 5). While Horton will use both variants in passing situations the tape shows a strong preference for the ‘Tampa 2’, a well-known version of the concept popularized by Tony Dungy’s 2002 Super Bowl-winning Tampa Buccaneer squad.

While the Tampa 2 has seen a huge decline in popularity as a base concept during the past decade (primarily due to the quick-strike passing game, spread formations, and lack of ability to consistently blitz out of the coverage due to number constraints), the coverage is still a popular choice when facing obvious passing downs due to its structure. Get the pass defenders in zones with their eyes on the quarterback and receivers, force the ball to go underneath, and rally to make the tackle short of the first-down marker.

The zone responsibilities are shown below:

Both cornerbacks are responsible for the flat, allowing them to press the wide receiver at the line of scrimmage from inside leverage (cornerbacks must force the receivers to release inside to keep the deep safeties on their hash) and sink to 10-12 yards. If the receiver continues to press vertical the half-field safety will take over deep coverage, allowing the cornerback to play any short throws. Because the cornerbacks spend so much time near the line of scrimmage, both must be above-average tacklers as they will have force responsibilities in the running game and often find themselves coming downhill on a receiver after a short reception.

Linebackers will play the strong and weak seam/hooks, dropping to 10-12 yards off the line of scrimmage. From there both will look to collision any vertical routes while jumping underneath routes such as shallows.

The MIKE has the most difficult job in the Tampa 2 as he must open his hips to the strength of the formation (whichever side of the field has three of more skill players) and carry any threats to the seam. In order to play Tampa 2 with any consistency the MIKE must be an athlete as teams will look to attack the deep middle hole with in-breaking vertical routes like the ‘Pin’ concept (Post/Dig).

The two deep safeties will split the deep field into two half, with each taking the zone to his side of the field. Both defenders should be near the hashes pre-snap (anywhere from 12-20 yards deep), opening the hips and dropping to their landmarks (the top of the numbers) at the snap. The deep defenders must practice good eye discipline as they read the quarterback and receivers for the throw, playing vertical routes before the intermediate and short game.

We’ll start our film study by looking at a turnover created out of the Tampa 2 on a 3rd and 14 down/distance.

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There are several moving parts here, so let’s start with the defense’s pre-snap movement. Notice the corners near the line of scrimmage before the snap. Both want to force an inside release from the wide receiver in order to protect their deep-half defender from widening too early. If the safeties are forced off their hash too early in order to defend a potential nine route, the size of the middle hole will dramatically widen, opening up the middle of the field for inside-breaking routes.

The cornerback along the top of the clip aligns with standard inside leverage (outside shoulder aligned over the receiver’s inside shoulder), using the sideline as a barrier to pin the receiver should he release outside. The field (wide-side) cornerback aligns with outside leverage because he has a wider area to defend. If the receiver is going to release outside, the defender will force him to widen substantially towards the sideline, wasting precious time while the pass rush gets to the quarterback. This alignment is a great example of why football ‘rules’ are rarely writing in stone and must be adjusted based on philosophy, concept, and alignment (remember a Tampa 2 cornerback is “supposed” to always align with inside leverage).

Move to the strong safety located on the wide-side of the field along the bottom of the clip. Although he starts from a depth that will allow him to play a variety of coverages, he quickly retreats to the 15-yard line at the snap in order to gain depth in his deep-half drop.

Finally, let’s look at the linebacker’s play pre-snap. Notice the five-man front created by the SAM and Elephant in both C-gaps. This serves to help hid the coverage and underneath defenders until after the snap.

Moving on to the snap we see both corners reroute the wide receivers using their feet. The boundary (short-side) cornerback forces an inside release from the X receiver while the field cornerback’s alignment and open forces the Z receiver to use almost seven horizontal yards in order to gain his outside release. Both defenders make a zone turn at the 25-yard line, putting their backs to the sideline so they can read the quarterback for the throw. Both continue to gain depth underneath the outside receiver as there is no immediate threat to the flat, creating a pseudo ‘hi-lo’ bracket coverage.

The strong safety tips the coverage early with his pre-snap bailout as he aims for the top of the number. Both safeties end up roughly 18 yards deep at the snap and continue to backpedal as they read the routes and quarterback in order to break on the throw. The strong safety breaks his pedal to play overtop the wheel route from the Z receiver, although this route is dead from the snap as the wide release will not give the quarterback time to let the route open up downfield.

The MIKE opens his hips towards the passing strength (the twin receivers) at the snap and drops into the deep middle hole. He is relying on the seam/hook defenders to wall off any seam routes in order to create time to get to his landmark. You can clearly see from his helmet he is reading the #2 receiver from the snap and goes into fifth gear at the 15-yard line as he recognizes the vertical seam route. Great job carrying the route and protecting the middle hole, creating no room for a throw here.

The seam/hook defenders complete the Cover 2 shell. The SAM (MAC in LeBeau/Horton terminology) drops at the snap to play the strong side hook while the WILL (Buck in LeBeau/Horton terminology) drops to play the weak side. Both end up ten yards downfield before breaking on the shallow’ ‘Mesh’ concept executed by the deuce tailbacks. Like the MIKE, it is easy to recognize both reading the routes and quarterback by the direction of their helmets.

Even if the ball was caught here several defenders are in position to rally to the ball carrier and take him to the ground short of the first down marker, but the quarterback rushes his throw due to pressure from the ‘Tex’ (Tackle and end) stunt run by the 3 and wide-five technique. Because both seam/hook defenders break on the underneath routes the SAM gets a gift interception as Dolphins’ signal-caller Ryan Tannehill throws the ball right to him.

In next week’s f we will continue to look at coverages with an emphasis on shells used behind Horton’s blitz package, the popular 3-deep, 3-under and Cover 0.


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